Four years ago, on July 26, 1948, President Truman issued his Executive Order 9981, directing "as rapidly as possible" a policy establishing "equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin."
This year, in the heat of another election, an accounting to the American people on the effectiveness, sincerity and execution of this directive seems in order since civil rights is a major issue in the campaign.
An Executive Order to wipe out, in our armed service what has been accepted as standard within military units and in many communities over the land, had all the appearances of an extreme act. Four years ago the entire concept of integrating whites and Negroes in our armed forces was roundly denounced by many politicians and top military brass among them the Republican Presidential nominee, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Today the entire atmosphere has undergone a startling and refreshing change. Not one top military official will fundamentally question the policy of integration. Everyone will tell you that it has immeasurably bolstered the morale of our fighting forces, increased their efficiency and has been successful. Even Southern Congressmen have no desire to make an issue of it, and General Eisenhower now accepts it.
The change didn't just happen. The President's order paved the way, but it has taken intelligence, hard work, ingenuity and sheer force to overcome those who would evade or oppose it. Prejudice is no more easily eradicated in our military than in our civilian population. Yet, progress has been made, basic progress.
"Integration," James C. Evans, top civilian assistant to the Secretary of Defense and monitor of the program, reporters, "is now over the hump. We still have some obstacles but the rest of the program is proceeding routinely." He estimates that, percentagewise, the program is now four-fifths effective, at least from the physical standpoint of segregation and discrimination. Psychologically, Evans believes, two-thirds of our fighting men are convinced of the justification of integration and fully accept it. The one-third is a rapidly diminishing figure. For the first time the program has actually reached a point where the Pentagon wants publicity on it.
The Navy, with its traditional caste system, has been the hardest to crack. Among enlisted seamen in general-service work the integration program has been most successful. But the stewards branch of the Navy remains the worst spot. There is not one white seamen in stewards work today, and 44 percent of all Negro enlisted seamen are in this branch. Of course, there is no regulation which states that white men cannot be assigned to the stewards branch, but it just doesn't happen. Six were so assigned last year but it proved unsatisfactory.
Lt. Donald Nelson, who rides herd on the integration program, doesn't try to obscure this problem. He feels that the fault lies at the recruiting and procurement level. When there are only openings in the stewards branch Negro volunteers are immediately signed up while white volunteers are usually advised to wait until there is an opening in general service. If the top navy so desired, proper policing could halt this.
This may explain, in part, why the Navy, made up of volunteers, is about 2.5 percent Negro while the other services are closer to 10 percent. Yet, 56 percent of all Negroes in the Navy today are in branches other than stewards in contrast to only 5 percent in 1945.
The low percentage of Negro officers in the Navy, just as its low enlisted rate, actually is a product of the Navy's reputation for a caste system. Negroes just don't apply. One of Lieutenant Nelson's major responsibilities is to "sell" the benefits of Navy enlistments to Negroes. He insists that their opportunities are better in the Navy than any other branch. He believes that, aside from the stewards branch, the Navy has acted more in spirit with the President's order than any other service.
Few people know that one of the principal pioneers in the original effort for integration in the Navy was Adlai Stevenson. In 1942, he came to Washington as assistant to Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and Stevenson's urgings weer greatly responsible for Knox's decision to open general-service classifications to Negroes, although he still balked at actually wiping out segregation. When James A. Forrestal succeeded Knox, Stevenson was given the green light to establish an integration program. The early orders carried the signature of Forrestal, but they were largely the work of Stevenson.
Other Navy secretaries have carried on this work. But now there is some concern because the present secretary, Dan A. Kimball, has upheld the use of segregated facilities for Negro and white civilian employees on Navy bases at Norfolk, Va., and Charleston, S.C. There are indications that this practice may spread to other bases. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has formally protested Kimball's stand to the White House, and a decision is promised soon.
The obstacles to integration faced by the Army differed from those of the Navy more in size than in tradition. There were Negroes in all branches, but they were segregated and totally about 9 to 10 percent. Most of them were in heavy-duty jobs, combat and combat-support units. The Army was reluctant to break up complete units and, with so much of its personnel concentrated in the South, moved painfully slow.
In 1949, the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment in the Armed Services, headed by Charles A. Fahey, reported that out of 490 active occupation specialties, 198 had no authorizations at all for Negroes while many other classifications had a 10 percent Negro quota. On March 27, 1950, however, the Army officially wiped out quotas, announcing to all commands that "effective with the month of April all enlistments in the Army within over-all recruiting quotas will be open to qualified applicants without regard to race and color."
Actually the Army first made integration work in Korea, tested by fire. It was no movement for social reform. mixed units of white and colored simply proved to be stronger than segregated teams. Today the Far East is considered almost completely integrated. There is still to come, though very little, integration in Europe. But considerable work remains to be done with units at home.
Among the Army's basic-training units integration is now universal. There are 10 basic-training divisions in the United States, accounting for 22 percent of the total personnel in the country. Pentagon officials feel that with both trainees and experienced troops integrated they are "squeezing" the program into the middle groups.
After the President's order in 1949, the Air Force may be credited with taking the most immediate and decisive steps to end segregation in its ranks. W. Stuart Symington, now Democratic nominee for the Seante from Missouri, was then Secretary of the Air Force. He promptly directed major commands to utilize all Negro personnel on the basis of individual capacities. Early directives did limited skilled classifications to 10 percent Negro, but this policy was later discarded.
The Air Force was the first service to notify the Fahey committee that it was prepared to stand a thorough field investigation as the results of the integration program. In January, 1950, the Fahey Committee did conduct such an investigation of seven major air bases. It found only one segregated unit. In the six Air Force technical schools, Negro enlisted students at that time comprised 6.5 percent of the total enlisted enrollment as compared to an over-all enlisted strength of 7.2 percent.
On January 31, 1950, the Committee reported that the Air Force had 25,351 Negro enlisted men and 351 officers. The breakdown of Negro assignment by unit follows:
Negroes in predominately Negro units... 4,404
Negroes in non-integrated Army units assigned to A.F.... 2,369
Negroes in mixed units... 11,611
Negroes in "pipeline"... 7,318
No later breakdown figures are available. However, it is known that the Negroes in the "pipeline" have been moved almost entirely to integrated units. Since the Air Force moved from being approximately 50 percent integrated in 1949 to being 74 percent integrated eight months later, Air Force spokesmen may be believed in saying that its program is largely completed.
The evaluation of integration in all three services as "over the hump" seems fair, although the program is certainly not completed. However, even the ever vigilant National Association for the Advancement of Colored People says that it is moving along satisfactorily. The NAACP does seek revision and change, but it is usually where one or a small group have been treated contrary to the spirit and intent of the President's Order.
A very high official in the Department of Defense who has followed the progress of the program closely has made what is probably the strongest statement acclaiming it: "After the politics have died down," he said, "and enough time has elapsed for the American people honestly to appreciate the Presidential Order and its end result, it will rank second only to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation."